Brief Encounter ... Lift star Julie Atherton
Craig Adams' show is set at Covent Garden tube station on an ordinary morning, exploring the thoughts of eight people and "revealing their innermost secrets".
Atherton is known for her performances in shows such as Avenue Q, Sister Act, The Last Five Years and Ordinary Days, and most recently made her panto debut playing Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith. She has released two solo albums, and has a long association with Perfect Pitch. She was also a vocalist on the concept album version of Lift.
Lift runs at the Soho Theatre until 24 February.
Can you tell me a bit about Lift?
It’s hard to explain what it’s about. It’s about one minute in a lift basically; it’s about one guy’s perception of other people in the lift. It’s like a piece of art, and people will take different things away from it when they go and see it. It’s not a story from beginning to end so it’s really difficult to explain - I think it’s one of those things you just have to come and see.
What’s it like rehearsing a show that doesn’t have a storyline all the way through?
It’s really exciting. It’s just so intricate, and it goes into so much detail. As long as we know, I guess it doesn’t really matter if some people can’t understand it. I was trying to explaining it to my mum which was the hardest thing; “It’s like a piece of art. You might not understand it but you’ll like it anyway.” The music’s just beautiful and so clever.
You played a different character in the original concept album to what you’re playing now. Is there a reason for this?
I think the reason I played the other part on the concept album was because I’d already sung “Lost in Translation” on my album. I wanted different versions. I had performed “It’s Been a Year” before. I was meant to sing “Rainy Day” and then Craig called me up and said “Actually, I want you to sing 'It’s Been a Year' because we haven’t got a version of that and you’ve done it before.” I think we could have played any part on the concept album, as it was faceless so you didn’t have to be like the character.
You’re playing the French teacher now. Are you enjoying it?
Yeah, I love it. She’s quite a complex character, and I’m really enjoying it. Everybody’s characters are complex in a way, but it’s what you bring to it. I suppose any character I play is going to be kind of like me, so it’s not completely different.
You were one of the first people to mention Lift to the Perfect Pitch team. When did you first get involved with the show?
I went to Mountview with Craig, and he wrote a piece then about kind of the same theory of one minute in a lift. It was part of a workshop, for some module, and we all performed a couple of songs from that. It was just a company number really for a devised project. Then he just said to me one day, “I’ve sent something in to Andy Barnes”, and I was doing a workshop with Andy at the time, and he said “can you put a good word in?”
The thing is with Craig’s music is that it’s very like Sondheim – the first time you hear it you think “I don’t know” because it’s not got a catchy, obvious tune to hang on to, but the more you hear it, the more you fall in love with it. You listen to it and you realise what a genius he is.
Has the show changed at all since the concept album?
Yeah, I’m sure it has, because obviously the concept album didn’t have the script attached to it and people didn’t play characters all the way through, so there are a few complex harmonies that he couldn’t put in because he didn’t have time to teach everybody them, so it’s definitely changed from the album. It’s in a great state now, I’m really enjoying it.
What is it you like about working on a show from the early stages?
You get to create the role and you don’t have to copy the way somebody else has done it before. When you do take over a role, unfortunately, people get set in their head. They picture the person before, so you just get carbon copies of the person before. You have to stand on the floor and sing this line on five, and it hasn’t come from you. You’re doing somebody else’s thoughts and feelings, which is a bit weird. You don’t feel like you’re working really, you just feel like you’re copying. To create a role is just so exciting, and that’s what I love.
Do you prefer working on smaller scale shows from the beginning rather than big productions like Avenue Q?
Absolutely, because you just feel so much more involved in it. Also, it’s only recently that these little shows have been given a life. We’ve been fighting for new works for a long time. It’s only now you have off-West End, and we didn’t used to really. There was always off-Broadway, but it took us a while to catch up. It’s brilliant doing the big shows as well, and obviously they started small somewhere, but it’s great being involved from this stage, because it feels like your baby! You do feel more part of it.
You’re a great advocate of new musical theatre writing. Why do you think it is so important?
Because everything was new once, and if we just kept repeating same old, same old, we’re never going to move forward. It’s an art form and all art forms move forward. Film moves forward, music moves forward, art moves forward but musical theatre, for some reason, gets stuck on a loop in this country, with people just going to see the tried and tested. It’s partly because ticket prices are so high, but it’s just so important to keep moving forward and trying new things. Just go and see something because you think the story might appeal to you. Don’t just go and see something because there’s a song you know in it, because you’ll get to know it! I wish people were less afraid. There are always cheap ticket deals, so go and see something new.
You did your first panto the end of last year, at the Lyric Hammersmith. What was that like?
I absolutely loved it, it was amazing. It was something about the group of people as well at the Lyric, and working with Sean Holmes. We had such a good laugh. I really enjoyed it. Pantos at the Lyric are so funny and Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s writing is just fantastic. So I knew she wouldn’t be just your average Cinderella, i.e. a wet lettuce. I knew it would be a bit ballsy, and a bit funny. I’d seen the pantos before and thought they were fantastic and the writing was genius. It’s so different to one of these big pantos with a football star in. They’re really cute, and I said if I was ever going to do panto, that’s where I’d do it.
I’m kind of working on something in place of a third album. I was going to do a third album, but instead we’re turning it in to a musical. It’s been on hold for a while, because, due to circumstances beyond our control, we’ve changed one of the writers. We’ve got a new writer, and we’re going to do a relaunch soon with a different title as well. It will have the same people involved. It’s all fitting into place which is exciting. When I get a minute to breathe, we’ll be back on track.
- Julie Atherton was speaking to Rosie Bannister